On Liberty, and Over the Precipice

 

“…He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. ” – Samuel

Several weeks ago, I got a call that a young lady had died of a drug overdose.  The case is closed, and the young lady was an adult, so the event passed without much comment and no official discussion.  I was not sad, in the sense of one who would feel a personal loss; not really any more than had I read about a drug overdose in the newspaper.  But I do remember sitting with this young lady in a hospital several years ago when I probably would have referred to her as a little girl.  She sat up in bed, looking at her phone, not paying much attention to me as I tried to figure out some way to convey the seriousness of her situation.  And why would she listen to me, a near-perfect stranger?  The only conversations she ever really had with me were always disappointing from her perspective.  No, emancipation is likely not an option for you, and here is why.  Yes, I’m afraid you must continue with these things the court has ordered you to do, and no, I cannot go back to the court with the same request that was denied last week.  This was a failed suicide attempt, and she was content to relish the attention while posting to her friends on social media the pictures of herself donning a gown and an IV; no words from me were ever going to shift her perspective in any meaningful way.  She would kill herself one way or another, and not because she wanted to die, but because she lacked any real motivation to live.

Not long after, I sat outside the courtroom with another young lady – not quite so young as the first, but younger than me.  She was crying.  I told her that I’ve known her for a few years, that I know what kind of person she is and what kind of person she can be; I told her that her son loves her and wants her back.  That her brother loves her and wants her back.  That her family loves her.  I don’t think I had ever really known this woman before her problems started to compound into something unsustainable, but I had known her during a time when the side of her that wanted to break out of the snowball that was bounding downhill, to love her children and (at the time) her foster children – I had seen when that side was the more visible, and when her demons were mostly confined to the inside, only occasionally to peek their heads out in ways that were likely obvious and undeniable to those willing to see them, but stifled enough to give hope that the even more obvious light would win out in the end.

The last time I saw that woman was just last week.  A guard was holding a computer screen facing a small rectangular hole that looked like an oversized mail slot in a heavy steel door, just low enough that she had to bend even in her seat, and cock her head sideways to see through.  Her arm was through the hole, pointed at the camera and shaking, and she was beet-red, screaming a non-stop string of sentences that nobody but the guard could hear.  She was on mute.  She did make me sad.  Because she looked almost exactly like someone who used to be quite different, and who I am not at all sure will ever make it back.

Dr. Fredrickson sat in my office; a damp room with paint over bare concrete walls, made to look like drywall, but hard enough that no picture could be hung.  The office was on the 3rd floor of an otherwise beautiful brick building that was already quite old when the crews lined walked up and down the streets with shovels and wheelbarrows, filling truckloads of ash from the late-May snowstorm provided by Mount St. Helens.  It held the memories of a hundred years from a city that grew up on orchards, which changed its face over years of shifting demographics from Indian reservations, migrant labor, and yet a sense of being isolated and still vaguely rural.  It holds the memories of a miserable job that I couldn’t leave soon enough or put far enough behind me, but it held myself and Dr. Fredrickson for a conversation about methamphetamines and mental health.  What he held was an unlit cigar, a thick mustache that was white on the sides and tobacco-colored in the middle, and an understanding of the permanent damage that can be done by certain drugs.  He explained a client of mine in a manner that I hadn’t thought quite possible, and he described what it really means to fry one’s brain.

* * * * *

For as much as we have historically attempted to define the difference between “liberal” and “conservative,” another sort of spectrum is far more useful when it comes to actual politics, and that is a line with Coercion on one end, and Liberty on the other.

Sometimes these lines seem a bit more like circles.  Liberals like to define historical totalitarian regimes – like the Nazis – as “far right,” presumably because they are able to analyze no further than “worst thing ever,” while far-left organizations, like the (intentionally?) ironically named “antifa” and the just as ironically named “black lives matter” seem to closely mirror the dictionary definition of fascist.  But these circles exist everywhere.  A few years ago, we might think it commonplace to witness an argument between a Libertarian and a Conservative, on the topic of drugs, wherein the Libertarian employed what he refers to as “the harm principle.”  Somewhat nonsensically put:  “your freedom to swing your fist ends at the point where it meets my nose.”  In other words, liberty is very important – so much so that it is incorporated into the very name!  Though, perhaps it is not quite as important as safety.

I am amazed with the Libertarian in the age of Covid.  Not because I disagreed with him in a prior era, but because of the extent to which I really did agree with him.  When we argued about drugs, I would often point to a career of dealing with the impacts of drugs; the many ways in which the idea of “victimless crime” is more commonly a myth; the wide-ranging harms caused by the abuse of certain drugs, and the massive costs imposed on society.  Most importantly, though, I would argue that these are extremely complex problems that cannot be explained away either by pretending that “the war on drugs” is alone responsible for all harms associated with drugs, or that drugs themselves are the root of a problem that often begins with mental health and societal decay.  I would argue that the decision to abuse drugs is often very far from merely a personal decision, and is one with a great many negative impacts, both seen and unseen, on a great many people.  I would argue that the harm principle is only useful inasmuch as you are able to distill an issue down to some single harm, rather than a complex net of interrelated, and often mutually exclusive, harms.  And that is virtually always impossible.

So we are left with this spectrum between coercion and liberty – or, you might rather describe it as a battle between the two.  Your freedom to swing your fist ends at the moment it strikes my nose; sounds great.  But in what way do we impair your freedom to strike my nose?  The harm principle leads right back around to coercion, which is the evil we sought to avoid in the first place – and as we’ve seen during 2020 and 2021, it can be stretched to any extent necessary when it comes to the justification of outright coercion over liberty.  An economist who wishes to use his credentials as a bully-stick rather than a persuasive tool might throw out the word “externalities,” which is just another way of saying “harm principle.”  And applied to COVID, as a bully-stick it has done quite well.

All else being equal, it seems fairly non-controversial to suggest that people ought to be free to look after their own physical health in the manner that best suits them.  If they wish to wear a mask, they should be free to do so, correct?  If they wish to take a vaccine, they should be free to do so, correct?  If they wish to take one certain prescription drug over another, they should be free to do so, correct?  And surely, if people believe something to be true, they should be free to express that; and if they believe someone to be right they should be free to listen to that person, correct?  Liberty is something we value – not simply as a good in itself, but because we understand the many and indescribable benefits that flow from liberty.  We understand that knowledge comes from experimentation, and that experimentation is largely based on trial and error.  We understand that individual value judgments send market signals, which collectively lead to the most efficient allocation of resources. Or did we only used to understand these things? Perhaps it was only a belief… A belief contingent on comfort.

A person might with some insight suggest that the Medieval Church’s stifling of inquiry and banning of ideas may have rather slowed scientific advancement; yet that same person often feels no sense of irony as he bows before the altar of Fauci and the CDC.  And the person who claims to be listening to doctors and experts is the first to respond to any dissenting expert with calls to burn the heretic, rather than invitations to debate.  When called on this contradiction, or asked to explain why suddenly this one is different enough that the above values no longer hold, the libertarian says “harm principle!” while the economist shouts “externalities!”

Because if I make the choice to not wear a mask – and if you are right about the value and use of masks (but we cannot argue about that) – then it is not a personal choice.  It is a choice I am making for everybody who comes within a certain distance of me.  If I make a choice to not inject myself with an experimental vaccine – and if you are right about the value and use of vaccines (but we must not argue about that!) – I increase the likelihood of my getting sick, which increases the likelihood of my infecting you (doesn’t that contradict the universal making thing?), and which also imposes an externality, a cost on society, when I end up in the hospital due to my obstinance.  And likewise, when I make the choice to pursue alternate medicines, to listen to dissenting experts, to vocalize my concerns about facts, or to amplify the voices of others – I create an externality.  I undermine the truth (and it would be far too dangerous to argue about that) that is being presented by official sources (who put them in charge? Don’t argue!), I sew distrust and confusion, I lead others astray and I cause them to also remove their masks and skip their injections – the system collapses because in order for one person to be successful, all people must be successful; because I have no liberty when it comes to externalities.  Every move I make, I encounter your nose.

Never mind the fact that externalities everywhere exist, and that it is impossible to do no harm.  Heart attacks are the number 1 cause of death in the United States, and my decision to eat that slab of bacon with scrambled eggs and cheese (if you are right about the value and effect of cholesterol on the human body) creates the same externality as my decision not to get vaccinated.  What does that teach my children and my friends about diet?  Should a hospital be required to take me when I’ve so obstinately ignored the advice of experts?  Why should any automobile move out of the way of the ambulance – how many commuters made late for work, how many kids late for school, how many potential car accidents because of my “liberty?”

So we move to coercion, and there is no limit to the externalities and harms that justify its use.  There are fists and noses literally everywhere because most everyone carries both around with them at all times.  My use of plastic – if you’re right about fossil fuels and their effect on climate (but the science is settled!) – causes oceans to rise, devaluing coastal properties, unbalancing habitats, killing countless lives both animal and human.  Your celebration of a holiday, your expression of humor, your interactions with your peers, your interest in mathematics and classical knowledge; all create insecurities and perpetuate systems of inequality (to question that conclusion would be racist!), leading to a society where the pot does not allow for any melting, where people cannot blend, because, after all, people are uncomfortable being so close to one another.

Your pursuit of happiness is a whole host of externalities.

That is because life isn’t as easy and as simple as “harm principle” or “externalities” require to be valuable justifications for anything.  Rather, they constitute little more than an end-run around the incredibly high bar that should be cleared before any one action is forced at the expense of all others.  Because I am afraid?  Because I do not wish to determine the truth and arrive at the best course of action, especially if that truth exposes my own powerlessness! Especially if the next course of action is to admit that I can do nothing at all.  Through fear, I turn to coercion – I demand a king.  If we give him the power to do so, the king forces the issue.  He silences any voices that raise concern about the costs imposed by his actions, just as he bans the exploration of whether those actions provide any meaningful benefits.  The king elevates one single consideration above all others.  You hope that the king will elevate your concerns above all others, and that he will force me to comply.  But Samuel warns us what happens when we demand a king.

The alternative is scary.  It means that we live in a broken world where nothing is ever going to be perfect, where there are no easy solutions, and where there are never going to be any universal solutions.  It means that sometimes we will need to live with our fears, and that sometimes we will need to address those fears by seeking information or even by adjusting our own lives as necessary.  It means that when we are confronted by opposing viewpoints, by skeptics, by experts who have come to different conclusions, we cannot silence those voices; we either persuade them, or be persuaded ourselves.  Most of all, it sometimes leads us to the acknowledgment of our own powerlessness – and exposes the lie that is our delusion:  that we can solve our problem of powerlessness through the sheer exercise of power.

* * * * *

If we could go back to a simpler and happier time, when one could sit down with another libertarian and argue about the interplay between freedom and drugs, I might prefer to approach the question with a few agreed-upon understandings, and perhaps an emphasis that has been shifted over the past couple of years.  We could surely agree that coercion is an undesirable outcome, and is likely to have unintended consequences – and that it is foolish to use externalities to justify actions that bring only a different set of externalities.  Rather, it is necessary to balance harms, and to do so with a great amount of caution, and with deference toward humility.  There is a reason why I reacted to the overdose of my former client the way I did.  Absent a shift of perspective that could not be forced on her by anyone in the world, she was intent on killing herself one way or another.  That is a harm that emanates from the state of this world – from the presence of evil in the world, if you choose to look at it like that – and it is a harm that has been with us throughout history and will be with us until the end of time.  That harm is beyond our control.  We can seek to mend individual lives, but we cannot target only that which is a symptom of the problem and expect that problem to be solved.  On the other hand – there are drugs of another sort altogether, which do unintended damage, and which do at least merit consideration among those few issues that can be addressed at a societal level.  And to give credit to my libertarian friends, these issues are rarer by far; and the mitigations still carry unintended consequences that need to be weighed.

I hope that we could at least come to this conclusion:  that the existence of externalities, the mere existence of harm, cannot alone be used to justify the elimination of liberty, because there will always be someone with a problem whose only solution is the imposition of his will over yours, and there will always be someone willing to grant that wish if we allow it.  There may be some kings who claim to be benevolent, who claim to simply be guided by expert opinion, who rely on “the science” to do what is best for you; and if that sort of king does not become a tyrant right away, what will he do when someone comes along with a different view, a different “science,” a different opinion?

Every totalitarian regime justifies its existence through the fears of its people, while its people cling to the promise of safety to rationalize their own subjugation.  We are on a precipice right now, if we have not already plunged over; we run the risk of finding ourselves in history books, listed along all other peoples who allowed themselves to be crippled by fear; people who demanded a king, and who were given one.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Hammer, The (Ryan M):

    The alternative is scary.  It means that we live in a broken world where nothing is ever going to be perfect, where there are no easy solutions, and where there are never going to be any universal solutions.  It means that sometimes we will need to live with our fears, and that sometimes we will need to address those fears by seeking information or even by adjusting our own lives as necessary.  It means that when we are confronted by opposing viewpoints, by skeptics, by experts who have come to different conclusions, we cannot silence those voices; we either persuade them, or be persuaded ourselves.  Most of all, it sometimes leads us to the acknowledgement of our own powerlessness – and exposes the lie that is our delusion:  that we can solve our problem of powerlessness through the sheer exercise of power.

     

    Very good. Very, very good.

    • #1
  2. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

     We have to accept living with some risk of harm, true, but don’t we also have to accept living with some level of coercion?

    (I think you guys may have asked for a king after 9/11 . )

    • #2
  3. Hammer, The (Ryan M) Member
    Hammer, The (Ryan M)
    @RyanM

    Zafar (View Comment):

    We have to accept living with some risk of harm, true, but don’t we also have to accept living with some level of coercion?

    (I think you guys may have asked for a king after 9/11 . )

    Indeed.  And there are some who would argue that, in addition to our imposition of laws in order to enable a free society (how can we have freedom of contract without the enforcement of laws, for instance?) and protect life and property (the obvious laws against murder and theft), we ought to accept further coercion in order to mitigate as much harm as possible.  Prohibition, certainly.  On both drugs and alcohol (enforced with breathalizers in all cars).  Soda bans, possibly?  Plastic bag bans, certainly.  The complete elimination of fossil fuels.  Mandatory vaccination for children to attend school, for adults to go anywhere and do anything…  certainly mandatory masks at the whim of whomever decides that it is necessary, where, and when.

    I also mentioned health-care…  interesting how concerned we are that someone who is unvaccinated might be “clogging up” a hospital that is <10% full of covid patients.  Apparently, they are the tipping point.  But could we extend that logic?  What about the fat guy who is in the ICU with a heart problem?  What about the gang member in the ICU with a gunshot wound?  What about the teenager who was driving his 75 in a 25 and crashed?  When we ration medical care based on merit, where do we end up?

    But that was my point.  And that was why I used the specific example of drugs.  The negative externalities that arise from drug use are undeniable, but the libertarian position is that the interventions do far more harm than good – in this context, they are very good about valuing liberty over coercion, and while some go way too far by denying the harms of drug use (and exaggerating the harms of drug laws), they are generally good at articulating the undesirability of these tradeoffs.  Oddly, I have seen a great number of self-described libertarians who support covid mandates and restrictions.

    • #3
  4. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Hammer, The (Ryan M): I hope that we could at least come to this conclusion:  that the existence of externalities, the mere existence of harm, cannot alone be used to justify the elimination of liberty, because there will always be someone with a problem whose only solution is the imposition of his will over yours, and there will always be someone willing to grant that wish if we allow it.  There may be some kings who claim to be benevolent, who claim to simply be guided by expert opinion, who rely on “the science” to do what is best for you; and if that king does not become a tyrant right away, what will he do when someone comes along with a different view, a different “science,” a different opinion?

    First, this essay is simply phenomenal. Thank you for the time and effort you put into this.

    • #4
  5. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Hammer, The (Ryan M) (View Comment):
    Indeed.  And there are some who would argue that, in addition to our imposition of laws in order to enable a free society (how can we have freedom of contract without the enforcement of laws, for instance?) and protect life and property (the obvious laws against murder and theft), we ought to accept further coercion in order to mitigate as much harm as possible.  Prohibition, certainly.  On both drugs and alcohol (enforced with breathalizers in all cars).  Soda bans, possibly?  Plastic bag bans, certainly.  The complete elimination of fossil fuels.  Mandatory vaccination for children to attend school, for adults to go anywhere and do anything…  certainly mandatory masks at the whim of whomever decides that it is necessary, where, and when.

    While I have been highly critical of a libertarian ideology, I have always thought it a useful processing ideal – that we should weigh things in favor of liberty and only accept the least amount of coercion we can tolerate on a policy – which means not all will play out the same.

    The effect would hopefully be that we err closer to freedoms. Not that we would ultimately end up in a purely libertarian society, but that it would be as close to one as we can tolerate and be stable.

    • #5
  6. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Hammer, The (Ryan M) (View Comment):
    Indeed.  And there are some who would argue that, in addition to our imposition of laws in order to enable a free society (how can we have freedom of contract without the enforcement of laws, for instance?) and protect life and property (the obvious laws against murder and theft), we ought to accept further coercion in order to mitigate as much harm as possible. 

    It’s always a balance, isn’t it?  Great essay. 

    • #6
  7. Hammer, The (Ryan M) Member
    Hammer, The (Ryan M)
    @RyanM

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Hammer, The (Ryan M) (View Comment):
    Indeed. And there are some who would argue that, in addition to our imposition of laws in order to enable a free society (how can we have freedom of contract without the enforcement of laws, for instance?) and protect life and property (the obvious laws against murder and theft), we ought to accept further coercion in order to mitigate as much harm as possible.

    It’s always a balance, isn’t it? Great essay.

    Always!

    Thank you.

    • #7
  8. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Percival (View Comment):

    Hammer, The (Ryan M):

    The alternative is scary. It means that we live in a broken world where nothing is ever going to be perfect, where there are no easy solutions, and where there are never going to be any universal solutions. It means that sometimes we will need to live with our fears, and that sometimes we will need to address those fears by seeking information or even by adjusting our own lives as necessary. It means that when we are confronted by opposing viewpoints, by skeptics, by experts who have come to different conclusions, we cannot silence those voices; we either persuade them, or be persuaded ourselves. Most of all, it sometimes leads us to the acknowledgement of our own powerlessness – and exposes the lie that is our delusion: that we can solve our problem of powerlessness through the sheer exercise of power.

     

    Very good. Very, very good.

    True.

    • #8
  9. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    An interesting essay.  As I am not a libertarian in any way shape or form, it is interesting to consider.   I think there are two ways to expand this.

    What is the King’s job?  Most important is to provide defense against invaders – this was why the first governments came to exist.  You can’t raise an army like the king, and the king takes the lerad in war.    Then you have the ideal of Justice.  From the earliest days of civilization, the ideal king would uphold the rule of law fairly and impartially – to do otherwise was to be a tyrant, little different from a bandit running a protection racket.  This allows business to flourish – there has to be some steel behind the contracts, or they become a sucker bet.  After that, you have some grand public works and other projects which are supposedly to benefit everyone, and only the king has the power to do.  Where that line is drawn is up for debate – consider that we have regular private spaceflight, something people thought was a government-only task, but I’m not sure I see private sewers any time soon.  Lastly, we have the favorite of people today – promoting the public morality.  Why elsedoes the government deal with so many regulations and mandates that don’t actually have anything to do with the rule of law?

    Right now, the progressive equivalent to a king cannot actually create public works.  They try to claim the mantle of law for public health, but grant exceptions for rioters and the politically connected.  They cannot even provide protection from invaders.  They are worse at being king than George III, and he had the excuse of being crazy.  People want to turn to a king to enforce masks and pronouns, but said king can’t even enforce laws against arson and theft fairly.

    This brings me to the second angle.  There should be a presumption that any given thing is not the government’s job, that the government should not interfere unless necessary.  This was long one of the central parts of our government, and is part of how I evaluate a given problem.  When in doubt, keep the government out or minimize its role.

    For the people eager to to invoke the king’s power, it seems that it is the opposite – the government can do anything it is not forbidden to do.  This can only lead to tyranny.  For those who invoke the king do not consider what might happen if the king is on the other side.

    • #9
  10. Hammer, The (Ryan M) Member
    Hammer, The (Ryan M)
    @RyanM

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):
    What is the King’s job?

    We have a democratic republic and a constitution specifically because those who founded this country had a good understanding of how a King goes about doing his “job.”

    • #10
  11. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Interesting, those not among the 26 “likes” given the conversations of the last several days. (Yeah, not really.)

    • #11
  12. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    I will have to come back to this later in the week when I have time to read it 3 or 4 more times but on the first pass it is simply wonderful. 

    As is becoming a habit, I will recommend American Individualism and A Challenge to Liberty by Herbert Hoover.  Both should be read far and wide in these troubled times. 

    • #12
  13. Hammer, The (Ryan M) Member
    Hammer, The (Ryan M)
    @RyanM

    philo (View Comment):

    Interesting, those not among the 26 “likes” given the conversations of the last several days. (Yeah, not really.)

    Uh, oh- I’ve been busy the last several weeks and not reading much.  I didn’t have any other ricochet thread in mind… I was actually thinking about the comments from an EconLib.org post that is probably now several months old!

    • #13
  14. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    This was not mentioned in the Post, but I don’t think that government arose as a means of promoting the public good — at all.  I don’t think it was a matter of merit or reputation or respect, or even of white hair and patriarchal lineage.

    I think government, as a recognized authority, has always been about the baser qualities of the human psyche.  It’s one thing to be the grandfather or great-grandfather of a clan, but another to be an acknowledged potentate — with an emphasis on the potent.  And I do not even think that the public acclamation of a ruler reinforces that properness of the rule or the position but merely a group acquiescence to it.  And I do not think that being a ruler is in any way dependent upon promoting justice, or equality, or fairness, but an external order, within which lower people can act with a margin of independence.

    I think he who is used to getting his way, and can force it, and does enforce it, is the type of person who declares rulership upon the whole.

    If we look around the world today, I think we see rule by authority, secured by force — with perhaps some countries that are more deliberately benign.  And this is my impression of history as a whole.  It is not the nature of mankind to seek helping others, but taking what others have; whether it’s crops, or gold, or cattle or labor.

    It is, I think,  a truly unique period in human history that we have increasingly enjoyed for the last couple of centuries, and even then there has been bloodshed on, I tend to think, on an unprecedented scale.  All of it carried out by governments (h/t to Zuby).

    If someone doesn’t punch me in the nose, it’s because he doesn’t think it’s worth it.

    The only qualification to this is the cultural and personal (the spiritual) influence of Christ and Christian thought, morality, and practice that has elevated mankind out of the societal ooze.  And as it wanes, we slowly begin to descend again.

    Perhaps I have to learn to turn the other cheek and trust God.

    • #14
  15. Hammer, The (Ryan M) Member
    Hammer, The (Ryan M)
    @RyanM

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    An interesting essay. As I am not a libertarian in any way shape or form, it is interesting to consider. I think there are two ways to expand this.

    What is the King’s job? Most important is to provide defense against invaders – this was why the first governments came to exist. You can’t raise an army like the king, and the king takes the lerad in war. Then you have the ideal of Justice. From the earliest days of civilization, the ideal king would uphold the rule of law fairly and impartially – to do otherwise was to be a tyrant, little different from a bandit running a protection racket. This allows business to flourish – there has to be some steel behind the contracts, or they become a sucker bet. After that, you have some grand public works and other projects which are supposedly to benefit everyone, and only the king has the power to do. Where that line is drawn is up for debate – consider that we have regular private spaceflight, something people thought was a government-only task, but I’m not sure I see private sewers any time soon. Lastly, we have the favorite of people today – promoting the public morality. Why elsedoes the government deal with so many regulations and mandates that don’t actually have anything to do with the rule of law?

    Right now, the progressive equivalent to a king cannot actually create public works. They try to claim the mantle of law for public health, but grant exceptions for rioters and the politically connected. They cannot even provide protection from invaders. They are worse at being king than George III, and he had the excuse of being crazy. People want to turn to a king to enforce masks and pronouns, but said king can’t even enforce laws against arson and theft fairly.

    This brings me to the second angle. There should be a presumption that any given thing is not the government’s job, that the government should not interfere unless necessary. This was long one of the central parts of our government, and is part of how I evaluate a given problem. When in doubt, keep the government out or minimize its role.

    For the people eager to to invoke the king’s power, it seems that it is the opposite – the government can do anything it is not forbidden to do. This can only lead to tyranny. For those who invoke the king do not consider what might happen if the king is on the other side.

    Well put!

    • #15
  16. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):
    What is the King’s job?

    I did a post recently titled Four Views of Government:  

    1–If the king did not, without tiring, inflict punishment on those worthy to be punished, the stronger would roast the weaker, like fish on a spit.

    –the laws of Manu, 1500 BC

    2–Government is not reason, it is not eloquence,—it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.

    –Often attributed to George Washington, although there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he actually ever said it.

    3–The speaker at a meeting, Grant, asks: “What is the prime knowledge acquired by our race? That without the rest is useless? What flame must we guard like vestal virgins?”

    Members of the group give various answers: fire, writing, the decimal system, the wheel.

    “No,” says Grant, “none of those. They are all important, but they are not the keystone. The greatest invention of mankind is government. It is also the hardest of all. More individualistic than cats, nevertheless we have learned to cooperate more efficiently than ants or bees or termites. Wilder, bloodier, and more deadly than sharks, we have learned to live together as peacefully as lambs. But these things are not easy..”

    –from Robert Heinlein’s novel Tunnel in the Sky, in which a group of high school kids are stranded on a planet galaxies away, and have come to accept the idea that they are probably never going to be rescued. After a period of choosing their leader by acclamation, they have now decided to hold a formal election for that purpose.

    4–Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.

    –Congressman Barney Frank, also Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and (in somewhat different form) Barack Obama.

    My Assertion: The first three quotes all have elements of truth and provide useful perspectives on the problem of government; the fourth one has no such redeeming value.

     

    • #16
  17. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Huge issue as a serious move toward liberty requires the elimination of most state involvement in our lives, most bureaucratic power and, in general a return to our original constitutional governance.    Beyond that it gets silly so the term libertarian may not be the best word as there is a lot of silliness behind that word.  By itself the word has no history.  .

    • #17
  18. Hammer, The (Ryan M) Member
    Hammer, The (Ryan M)
    @RyanM

    I Walton (View Comment):

    Huge issue as a serious move toward liberty requires the elimination of most state involvement in our lives, most bureaucratic power and, in general a return to our original constitutional governance. Beyond that it gets silly so the term libertarian may not be the best word as there is a lot of silliness behind that word. By itself the word has no history. .

    Self described libertarians, generally (and I often refer to myself as such) argue for as little government as humanly possible. Beyond that, wide variance.

    • #18
  19. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    David Foster (View Comment):

    4–Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.

    –Congressman Barney Frank, also Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and (in somewhat different form) Barack Obama.

    My Assertion: The first three quotes all have elements of truth and provide useful perspectives on the problem of government; the fourth one has no such redeeming value.

    According to The Golden Bough, government and religion are deeply related. They give a sense of community, order and meaning. Also, historically the King represented the Kingdom’s relationship to divinity. And if the King was not in accordance with the divine will, the Kingdom would suffer plagues and droughts. Barney Frank may be just be another corrupt pol but he understands human superstition. 

    • #19
  20. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    This is a superb post. Thank you!

    I agree that the REAL debate is between liberty and tyranny (or, as you say, coercion).  Every society in the history of the world can be readily placed somewhere on this spectrum, even though there are various kinds of freedoms and tyrannies.

    • #20
  21. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Ryan, great post.

    Having a king didn’t work out very well for Israel and Judah.  It was pretty good when there was a good king, which was seldom — never in Israel, about half the time in Judah, if I remember correctly.

    There is a Bible passage for the problems at the other end of the spectrum, from Joshua 2, right after Joshua’s death:

    11And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. 12And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. 13They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. 14So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. 15Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them for harm, as the LORD had warned, and as the LORD had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress.

    16Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD, and they did not do so. 18Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. 19But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. 20So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he said, “Because this people have transgressed my covenant that I commanded their fathers and have not obeyed my voice, 21I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died, 22in order to test Israel by them, whether they will take care to walk in the way of the LORD as their fathers did, or not.”

    • #21
  22. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Every once in a while, a Canute needs to come along and straighten out the thinking of those who impute godlike powers to government.

    Sorry, boys and girls… Biden can’t make it rain Skittles any more than Canute could restrain the tides.

    • #22
  23. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    Zafar (View Comment):

    We have to accept living with some risk of harm, true, but don’t we also have to accept living with some level of coercion?

    (I think you guys may have asked for a king after 9/11 . )

    Many of us did not want a king.

    And what followed, with the insistence we take off our shoes, allow for full body searches of random individuals, etc just to get on an airplane soon indicated what levels of stupidity the government would include in its efforts to be secure.

    Of course, why the public would trust the same government which after being a recipient of 31 trillions of taxpayer dollars since 1948 to Sept 11th 2001, yet failed to do a damn thing to stop the attack on our nation, I simply cannot explain.

    • #23
  24. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio&hellip; (View Comment):

    Having a king didn’t work out very well for Israel and Judah.  It was pretty good when there was a good king, which was seldom — never in Israel, about half the time in Judah, if I remember correctly.

    Hmm. Maybe less than half of the kings of Judah.  Hezekiah, Jehoshaphat, Asa, Josiah, Joash.  And that’s grading on a curve a bit.  Did I miss anyone? Maybe Rehoboam after he was humbled a bit?

    • #24
  25. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):
    Of course, why the public would trust the same government which after being a recipient of 31 trillions of taxpayer dollars since 1948 to Sept 11th 2001, yet failed to do a damn thing to stop the attack on our nation, I simply cannot explain.

    But they did stop any repeats. Were the constraints that made that possible worth it?

    • #25
  26. Hammer, The (Ryan M) Member
    Hammer, The (Ryan M)
    @RyanM

    Zafar (View Comment):

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):
    Of course, why the public would trust the same government which after being a recipient of 31 trillions of taxpayer dollars since 1948 to Sept 11th 2001, yet failed to do a damn thing to stop the attack on our nation, I simply cannot explain.

    But they did stop any repeats. Were the constraints that made that possible worth it?

    I think it is possibly worth being somewhat more aggressive in the Middle East – but I don’t think the TSA has actually helped to thwart attacks on our country.  

    • #26
  27. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    Hammer, The (Ryan M) (View Comment):
    I think it is possibly worth being somewhat more aggressive in the Middle East – but I don’t think the TSA has actually helped to thwart attacks on our country. 

    The response was a lot broader than the TSA. (I’m also not 100% that more aggressive in the Middle East would be best, but opinions do vary.)

    • #27
  28. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Hammer, The (Ryan M): I hope that we could at least come to this conclusion:  that the existence of externalities, the mere existence of harmcannot alone be used to justify the elimination of liberty, because there will always be someone with a problem whose only solution is the imposition of his will over yours, and there will always be someone willing to grant that wish if we allow it.

    For obvious reasons, my mind wanders back to the third essay in On Looking into the ABYSS: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Titled “Liberty: ‘One Very Simple Principle’?“, that piece digs into Mill’s “On Liberty.” Some relevant passages and thoughts:

    …the problem of liberty is no longer the problem of political liberty, of the struggle against a tyrannical regime imposing its arbitrary will on an oppressed populace. … The problem now facing liberty is a new form of tyranny, a “social tyranny” exercised by the populace itself over the individual. – Pages 75-76

    Well, actually….today it is both political and social tyranny that attacks us. But the large point for “us” is to be very stingy regarding the definition of “harm”:

    Even the qualification regarding harm reinforces the moral neutrality of society, for it is only in the case of harm to others, not for the “good” of others, that society can properly interfere with the freedom of the individual. And harm itself is further qualified by being limited to “direct,” “definite,” ”perceptible” harm… – Page 84

    Mill anticipated the objection that no act is ever entirely self-regarding, but he made a valiant effort to retain the distinction between self- and other-regarding acts as much as possible. – Page 90

    Additionally, it times of crisis, history informs us that:

    …when liberty itself is in jeopardy…the only security against an absolutistic regime [is] an absolute principle of liberty. … – Page 103

    At times like this, it is important to pull back some of the compromises to our liberty that have been given or taken over the years of peaceful “liberalization” and insist on a cleaner, stronger liberty until the other side comes to its senses…or is defeated.  To watch the “compromisers” hope the keep the old game alive is very frustrating. Therefore, I’ve been rather short in recent days here with those condescending “common sense mandate rationalizers” and their muddleheaded evenhanded reasoning with that “absolutistic” movement of the hour. Unfortunately, I expect more of that to come…

    • #28
  29. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Hammer, The (Ryan M): There may be some kings who claim to be benevolent, who claim to simply be guided by expert opinion, who rely on “the science” to do what is best for you; and if that sort of king does not become a tyrant right away, what will he do when someone comes along with a different view, a different “science,” a different opinion?

    Back to my earlier recommendations, Hoover documented old lessons a century ago that we seem to have forgotten:

    …the day has not arrived when any economic or social system will function and last if founded upon altruism alone. – Page 13

    In our blind groping we have stumbled into philosophies which lead to the surrender of freedom. The proposals before our country do not necessarily lead to the European forms of Fascism, of Socialism, or of Communism, but they certainly lead definitely from the path of liberty. The danger lies in the tested human experience, that a step away from liberty itself impels a second step, a second compels a third. The appetite for power grows with every opportunity to assume it, and power over the rights of men leads not to humility but to arrogance, and arrogance incessantly demand more power. A few steps so dislocate social forces that some form of despotism becomes inevitable and Liberty dies. – Pages 197-198

    But, in regards to your greater discussion on the continuum, I like this from Hoover:

    The American System has steadily evolved the protections of Liberty. In the early days of road traffic we secured a respect for liberties of others by standards of decency and courtesy in conduct between neighbors. But with the crowding of highways and streets we have invented Stop and Go signals which apply to everybody alike, in order to maintain the same ordered Liberty. But traffic signals are not a sacrifice of Liberty, they are the preservation of it. Under them each citizen moves more swiftly to his own individual purpose and attainment. That is a far different thing from the corner policeman being given the right to determine whether the citizen’s mission warrants his passing and whether he is competent to execute it, and then telling him which way he should go, whether he likes it or not. That is the whole distance between ordered Liberty and Regimentation. – Pages 199-200

    Those who do not recognize the regimentation, and the dangers thereof, in this mandate (and, more directly, in the federal contracting mechanisms being used to expedite and institutionalize it and its powers forever) are very foolish people. Yes, some are disgustingly smug about it in comment sections today…but fools they are.

     

    • #29
  30. Hammer, The (Ryan M) Member
    Hammer, The (Ryan M)
    @RyanM

    philo (View Comment):

    Hammer, The (Ryan M): … that the existence of externalities, the mere existence of harm, cannot alone be used to justify the elimination of liberty, because there will always be someone with a problem whose only solution is the imposition of his will over yours, and there will always be someone willing to grant that wish if we allow it.

    For obvious reasons, my mind wanders back to the third essay in On Looking into the ABYSS: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Titled “Liberty: ‘One Very Simple Principle’?“, that piece digs into Mill’s “On Liberty.” Some relevant passages and thoughts:

    …the problem of liberty is no longer the problem of political liberty, of the struggle against a tyrannical regime imposing its arbitrary will on an oppressed populace. … The problem now facing liberty is a new form of tyranny, a “social tyranny” exercised by the populace itself over the individual. – Pages 75-76

    Well, actually….today it is both political and social tyranny that attacks us. But the large point for “us” is to be very stingy regarding the definition of “harm”:

    Even the qualification regarding harm reinforces the moral neutrality of society, for it is only in the case of harm to others, not for the “good” of others, that society can properly interfere with the freedom of the individual. And harm itself is further qualified by being limited to “direct,” “definite,” ”perceptible” harm… – Page 84

    Mill anticipated the objection that no act is ever entirely self-regarding, but he made a valiant effort to retain the distinction between self- and other-regarding acts as much as possible. – Page 90

    Additionally, it times of crisis, history informs us that:

    …when liberty itself is in jeopardy…the only security against an absolutistic regime [is] an absolute principle of liberty. … – Page 103

    At times like this, it is important to pull back some of the compromises to our liberty that have been given or taken over the years of peaceful “liberalization” and insist on a cleaner, stronger liberty until the other side comes to its senses…or is defeated. To watch the “compromisers” hope the keep the old game alive is very frustrating. Therefore, I’ve been rather short in recent days here with those condescending “common sense mandate rationalizers” and their muddleheaded evenhanded reasoning with that “absolutistic” movement of the hour. Unfortunately, I expect more of that to come…

    I very much agree. The idea of “common sense mandates” is extremely dangerous. Nobody proposes social controls and infringements on liberty that they believe to be nonsensical. That is why liberty must be treated as very near to absolute. Again, masks are a fantastic examples. That mask zealots often defend mandates by insisting that “they at least do some good” is proof of how dangerous this mindset is. If that is the bar one must hurdle to justify mandates, then personal liberty is non-existent, because that bar will always be cleared.

    • #30
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